On this past Sunday's "Meet The Press", Senator John McCain, in the midst of discussing comprehensive immigration reform, said something rather startling about Phoenix, Arizona:
DAVID GREGORY: Is immigration reform in a comprehensive way possible this year or in this term?
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Not until we get the border secure. By the way, on that issue, why is it that Phoenix, Arizona is the number two kidnapping capital of the world? Does that mean our border is safe? Of course not.
Now, I was at a loss to explain why Phoenix, Arizona was the "number two kidnapping capital of the world." Turns out I didn't have to, because it isn't true. A Sunday show watcher named Jeff emailed me with the straight dope from the good people at Politifact, who don't hedge: despite the fact that this story has traveled far and wide, it's false.
Neither the FBI nor the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that serves as the United States' representative to Interpol, could confirm that Phoenix has the second-highest frequency of kidnapping cases worldwide. LaTonya Miller, an Interpol spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't track local kidnapping rates. An FBI spokeswoman, Denise Ballew, suggested we call city police departments to compile a kidnapping count since unlike local authorities, the bureau tracks kidnappings that result in someone being taken from one jurisdiction to another, such as across state lines.
Short of the time we'd need to call authorities in every medium- to big-size city in the world, we contacted Daniel Johnson, an overseas kidnapping operations consultant at ASI Global, a Houston-based company that coaches clients through kidnappings. You read that right: Say an insured family travels to Bulgaria and the father is kidnapped for ransom; ASI Global will deploy to Bulgaria to help the family negotiate with the abductor.
Johnson said: "From our internal experience in the last year, Mexico by far has been the biggest location for kidnappings" followed by Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria and the Philippines. The company has handled domestic cases but Thompson said they don't compare in volume to overseas incidents. Thompson said the company annually dispatches a consultant to handle about 50 to 100 cases a year. Mexico City, Caracas, Venezuela, and Tegucigalpa, Honduras are the three cities where they work on the most kidnapping cases, he said.
Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor, an Austin-based global intelligence company, separately chimed in: "According to our analysts, there is no way that Phoenix is the No. 2 city in the world for kidnapping and there are significantly more kidnappings in many other cities throughout Latin America," he said. "San Salvador, Guatemala City, Bogota as well as several cities in Mexico certainly have higher kidnapping rates than Phoenix."
Nevertheless, the pros from the kidnapping biz have been quick to point out that kidnappings are underreported, and that law enforcement abroad isn't as reliable on the matter as anyone would like them to be. So Politifact went to the source and discovered that yes, a lot of people are getting kidnapped in Phoenix, but such cases are on the wane.
Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a public information officer at the Phoenix Police Department, also said kidnappings are under-reported. "Herein lies the problem with the numbers," Thompson said. "Does Bogota, Colombia, keep records? Does Mogadishu, (Somalia), keep records? Does Houston, Texas, keep records? Does Austin keep records?"
He said Phoenix has been dealing with the issue for several years now, and the number of reported kidnappings have actually decreased since this story broke in 2009. There were 358 reported kidnappings in 2008 (10 fewer than reported by the LA Times, due to later reclassification of the crimes), 318 in 2009 and there were 105 from January through May 2010, he said, putting the city on track to sustain less than 300 this year.
Mindful that "spillover violence" from Mexico has become a politically-charged term in the U.S., Thompson said almost everyone who is kidnapped in Phoenix is involved in criminal activities such as illegal border crossings and the drug trade. "Unless you're involved in the dope trade, there's a very very slim chance" that you'll be kidnapped, he said.
As Thompson goes on to explain, officials in Phoenix -- unlike officials in many other cities with substantially worse kidnapping problems -- actually give a damn about the issue and are "open enough to say that we have an issue with kidnappings and not try to hide it." From there, however, the media played a game of Whisper Down The Lane, and it led to this insane distortion that Phoenix was the number-two place in the world to get yourself kidnapped.
So: false. Naturally, we wouldn't have worried about this if the statement had been made on "This Week", because Politifact is performing an independent fact-check of its show. "Meet The Press" labors under the premise that it is up to viewers to factcheck claims made on the show.
Anyway, now you "Meet The Press" viewers can take part of the morning off, from factchecking.